Most discussions about employee engagement and teamwork in the workplace focus on the work environment, individual needs and desires within the environment, and an overall holistic approach to work-life balance.
The one subject that’s almost universally avoided in these discussions is politics. Eliminating politics from discussions in the workplace is particularly odd, as politics have an impact on our daily lives and strongly influence other issues.
When flex-time was first introduced, for instance, the role of women in the workplace and the role of men in child-raising produced lively discussions that went beyond work. These issues had an effect on work-life balance conversations, and still do, but they also occurred in a political context as well.
During the 2016 presidential election, human resource professionals reported a 26% increase in political volatility in the workplace, and as many as 57% of workers claimed added stress due to politics. More than a year later, another study indicated that the volatility remains high at 31%.
People can be passionate about politics. Companies cannot ignore the issue, particularly if doing so creates an uncomfortable or even hostile work environment.
Finding the right balance between political self-expression and work productivity can be difficult. The challenge is to create guidelines that treat all opinions fairly while still keeping employee focus on achieving smart goals and objectives.
To the surprise of many, private companies can, and do, legally ban political discussions at work. The First Amendment, often raised as a defense against bans, applies only to government-related restrictions, not private ones. In general, most firms do not go so far as to enforce outright bans. Instead, they strongly discourage discussions that can create tension between co-workers.
Enforcing an outright ban creates its own problems. Management would need to monitor employees more closely than they wish, make decisions about what is and is not appropriate, and subject themselves to claims of favoritism. None of these situations support the healthy employee engagement strategies that most companies seek to establish today.
Acknowledging political discussions are going to happen and establishing some rules of engagement can go a long way to maintaining collegiality.
All workplace communications should be civil, and conversations about politics should be no different. Remind employees that the set of affairs affects everyone, but that companies and coworkers can (and should) still work together to achieve common goals. Encouraging employees to view political disagreements the same way they would view work style differences can change how workers perceive the discussions.
Often, the office is one of the few places people regularly encounter differing political opinions in a face-to-face situation. Companies should consider strategies similar to those of employee engagement to address the common goals of the firm, despite differing opinions. Emphasize the idea that political conversations in the workplace should be focused on understanding one another better, rather than igniting potentially heated debates.
Despite differences, people do have common ground issues. Encourage discussions that seek those ideas and, if situations start to become volatile, redirect conversations towards more mutually agreeable topics.
With the goal of improving employee engagement and work-life balance, companies need to be aware of political complications in the workplace. While encouraging people to bring their whole self to work, employees still need guidelines on how to maintain and improve team productivity and morale.
Politics will never go away. Employers who remain aware of the issues will remind employees that although their thoughts and feelings matter, they should not distract from everyone’s workplace goals.